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  • Writer's pictureWorld Half Full

School kids avert a flood


When a classroom of high school students noticed an urban design flaw in need of a fix — and no one was pressing to fix it — they decided to do something themselves. Perhaps it shouldn’t be such a surprise since the Dr Michael Conti Public School No.5 (PS5) in downtown Jersey City, USA, uses project-based learning to encourage students to think about solutions to real-life problems affecting their community.

The problem had been longstanding — and close to home, well, school. Every time there was a storm, rainwater from the school’s roof would flow into one storm drain until it was full, and then the excess would flood the street in front of the school. It was so bad parents and bus drivers had to navigate around the water and teachers moved their cars away from the school to avoid flooding.

“When a thunderstorm was forecast you knew there were certain areas not to park,” recalls Albert Padilla, former science teacher at PS5, and now Science Supervisor for the School District of Jersey City.

“One-fifth of our students are driven to school, so in the morning and the afternoon we have a huge backlog of cars. So when it would rain, it would make the situation a lot worse,” explains Principal John Rivero. “I remember cars getting on the sidewalk to avoid the water.”

However, when even Hurricane Irene in 2011 and then Superstorm Sandy the following year failed to prompt the school or the parents to solve the problem, the students decided enough was enough. They were already learning about water conservation in Padilla’s class when they asked him what could be done. “In that flooding, we found out it was also dragging all the pollutants into the water, like motor oil,” Padilla told Next City. That run-off also included nitrogen, phosphorus and suspended solids. “I thought it would be great to not only mitigate the stormwater, but also find a way to filter some of that going into the sewer system.”

Padilla and his students began researching different solutions and discovered green infrastructure — an umbrella term for using plants or landscaping to capture stormwater. They were impressed by how green infrastructure could simultaneously ease flooding and look appealing.

“Once we saw what green infrastructure was and how it could be implemented, the students ran wild with it,” remembers Padilla. “They were looking at green roofs, rain garden systems for the front of the school, and permeable pavement. That’s when we knew we had to expand outside the classroom, because it was getting above our pay grade.”

By 2013, Padilla and his students were ready to start the project, but first had to figure out how much runoff was coming off the roof. They found the average rainfall for Jersey City online, and went up to the roof to take measurements.

“When we got up there, we quickly realised we couldn’t measure the area of our roof with yard sticks,” says Padilla. “So I got the kids to use Google Maps, did a scale and proportion of the building to get the area of the roof, and calculated the stormwater coming off that.”

Not being a water resource engineer, Padilla approached Rosana Da Silva at Rutgers University, who was then an associate at the Cooperative Extension Water Resources Program (WRP), which works with communities to address water problems.

Da Silva and her team members took the calculations Padilla and his students did in class to verify their accuracy. The high schoolers were a little off, but close enough for the WRP to join the project. With Da Silva on board, Padilla sought her guidance in creating a water conservation and stormwater management lesson.

Da Silva picked up grant money to pay for her work and was able to help the students choose the right infrastructure. They settled on two raised pre-cast concrete stormwater planters next to the building to collect and absorb roof runoff, which was then fed into an underground discharge pipe; two kerbside stormwater planters to take roadway runoff; and pervious concrete on the footpath to allow stormwater to seep below to a perforated pipe under drain.

After a few years of work, the students got their parents and staff — and eventually the community and the school district — excited about the plan. A website was built to chronicle the work and Padilla and Da Silva regularly checked in to discuss progress, review work and discuss ways students could build upon their effort.

Then they contacted Jersey City council member Rich Boggiano who visited the school so the students could present the project to him. He loved the idea and encouraged the students to present it at a city council meeting. Though things were progressing well, the process was taking much longer than the students realised.

“After we presented to City Hall, it kind of went quiet for a while. We did a fundraiser and got about US$6,000 from the community and parents,” recalls Padilla. He and Rivero laugh now, but they thought the US$6,000 would be enough. As more public entities got involved it became clear it would cost much more.

While the students waited to see if their proposal would get the nod, WRP staff discussed the project’s benefits with the Jersey City Municipal Utilities Authority (JCMUA). Both organisations believed they could get funding for the project so it could serve as an example for other schools in the city. Without JCMUA elevating the project to one of the council’s green infrastructure priorities, it never would have happened.

The New Jersey Water Bank saw the potential and loaned JCMUA US$6.6 million, much of it forgivable. As Da Silva describes it, once the city saw JCMUA had secured funding, it was easy to get approval.

A changed school

Even before the project, the buzz had changed the school academically. As more students saw the potential of what their education could do, PS5 expanded its STEM curriculum. Students who weren’t planning a career in the sciences, changed their minds. Enrolment in after-school STEM programs went up, and PS5 became known as a hub for innovative kids. By the time the project was completed in 2017, many of the students who worked on it had become STEM majors in college. Some came back for the unveiling to see the finished project, and today a couple are engineers.

This isn’t a wealthy school, either; about half the students are economically disadvantaged.

With the flooding gone, and the school beautified, every day students are reminded of the power of education to change the world around them. “Throughout the process, the kids were learning critical thinking, self-management skills, and the importance of asking questions. It was a huge learning process not only for the kids, but for us as educators,” says Rivero, who has effusive praise for the teacher who inspired his students to think outside the box. “Mr Padilla was my rock star science teacher for 15 years, and now he’s the rock star science supervisor for the school district. He’s continuing the work he did at PS5, and taking it out to the district as a whole. He could have taught them from a book about water runoff, but they would’ve forgotten about it.”

ABOVE Students from PS5 meet with Mayor Steve Fulop to present their plan to stop flooding in front of their school and INSETS Students working on the project

PHOTO PS5 Eco-Cougars

He could have taught them from a book about water runoff, but they would’ve forgotten about it.

John Rivero

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